Sunday, December 03, 2017

Advent 1 - The Shifting of the World

Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37

How do you handle change? I don’t mean things like changes in the weather, or your favourite cereal coming in a smaller box. I mean massive change. How do you handle your world shifting beneath you? How do you handle things while you’re waiting for everything to settle down?

Our Gospel passage for today, this first Sunday of Advent, invites us to think about these questions. When the author of the Gospel of Mark writes about the days of suffering, and the sun and moon being darkened, and the power in the heavens being shaken, he’s reflecting the situation in which the Jews found themselves during the fall of the Second Temple in the year 70. Their world had been shaken, in a most devastating way, and was still shaking, and they were waiting for things to settle down.

This experience is, sadly, nothing new. There have always been times in history, either world history, or the history of a congregation, or even in our own personal history, when our world is shaken in devastating ways and we’re waiting for things to settle down. It’s a common experience in our lives, even if it feels incredibly uncommon when it occurs. And so we have Jesus talking about the time of waiting, that period when we endure the shaking of our world, saying that this time is like servants waiting for the master of the house to return from a long journey but nobody knows when that will be. We have Jesus saying that the servants of the house will have to endure an unsettling period of waiting.

So how do you feel as you wait for your world to settle down? It seems to me that waiting for the world to stop shifting, waiting for the master to arrive, can provoke quite different reactions. On the one hand, we can be hopeful and excited. The change that we are encountering, the way in which our world is shifting, might be so awful in and of itself that we are grateful for an end to it. When I was a child, I remember how much I hated having a substitute teacher in the class. When the regular teacher was away, schedules were all upset, and rules weren’t followed, and no one behaved. The classroom was always chaos. I couldn’t wait for the regular teacher to get back and to restore order. But I liked my teachers. And that influenced how I felt about the unsettling period when the one in charge was away. When it comes to Jesus’ parable, if we have experienced the master of the house as good, and kind, and caring, and just, and a stabilizing influence, then we will be hopeful and excited about him returning, no matter what the time.

On the other hand, if we have experienced the master as judgmental, and unfair, and abusive, we will endure the time of waiting with anxiety and fear. For example, I can imagine that my reaction to a substitute teacher would have been much different if I had not liked my regular teacher. If my teachers had been unfair, and too strict, and belittled students who made mistakes, or if I had gone to school in a time where bad behaviour was punished by the strap or a ruler, I can see that I would spend the time waiting for the teacher to return with great anxiety. What would they say when they got back? Would they have some new punishment ready for all the infractions committed when they were away? Would they have some new rule nobody could follow? When it comes to Jesus’ parable, if we’ve experienced the master of the house as power-hungry, and harsh, and unjust, then it’s perfectly natural that we would be anxious and fearful about him returning, no matter what the time.

Today’s Advent message is that when the world is shifting underneath you, it’s a sign that the master is coming. And when we hear that, we can feel hopeful or anxious, or both, depending on our past experiences. But Jesus gives us a clue as to what kind of master to expect. He hints at whether we should be hopeful and excited, or anxious and fearful. Jesus says, “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that [the Son of Man] is near.”

“Summer is near.” Surely this is something we can identify with as a symbol of good things to come. Jesus and the audience of the Gospel of Mark never knew winter like we do, with the cold temperatures and sometimes snow, and most importantly less than eight hours of sunshine every day. Jesus didn’t know the kind of giddy excitement for summer that we feel by the time March rolls around, but he did know that summer is the time when fruit is ripe and grain is ready for harvest. Summer is the time when food is plentiful and life is full.
And so when Jesus says that the Son of Man’s arrival, the master’s return to the house, is like the shifting of the world from winter to summer, we can understand that he means it is a good thing. The world shifting, as unsettling and painful as it might be, can be endured much like winter––with discomfort as the days get darker, yes, but also with hope and joy that summer is coming. The master, our good master, the master who gently guides us, and forgives our mistakes, and heals our pain––this master is the one who is returning. The master who brings peace to chaos, the master who brings strength to the weak, the master who brings God to us––this master is the one we’re waiting for.

This is why we have a church season called Advent. The purpose of Advent is not only to prepare us to celebrate Christmas and the birth of Jesus, even though that’s how we predominantly spend it. Advent is also meant to help us wait for the return of the master to the house. It’s meant to open our eyes to the ways in which our world is shifting in preparation for the Son of Man to come again. It’s meant to help us handle change with hope, rather than anxiety, by reminding us that all change ends with the return of our good master.

It’s not lost on me that in this congregation called Advent, you have been going through your own Advent season for a while now. In many ways, this congregation’s world has shifted quite a bit beneath you, and I have no doubt that as you wait for it to settle there is both hope and anxiety. This is natural. But as we celebrate this liturgical season of Advent, may God give you the faith to trust in Jesus’ promise that this period of waiting, like all others, will end with summer and stability and new life, and may God’s Spirit give you hope that outweighs your anxiety. Yes, the world is shifting, but our good master is coming. And so we say, with hope and joy, in this place of Advent, in this season of Advent: Come, Lord Jesus, Come. Amen.

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